I remember the knock on the door. It was 1982, and we were living in Basking Ridge, NJ. A fresh-faced and earnest 10 year-old wanted to know if he could mow our lawn. He said he was saving up to buy a car. Even though I was perfectly capable of mowing the lawn myself, I said, “Fantastic, you’re hired.” Today, 34 years later, we are still friends.

Richard is now a 5th degree black belt (godan) in Aikido, one of very few in the United States. Aikido is a Japanese martial art often translated as the way of unifying with life energy or harmonious spirit. The goal is to learn how to defend yourself while also protecting your attacker from injury – a rather enlightened concept. Richard has been a serious student of Aikido for the last 28 years. The fundamental requirement to master the art of the 5th degree is to empty yourself and begin again.

“August 9, 2016,” by Flickr user David Gabriel Fischer. THE ZEN DIARY

Yes, after all the discipline and devotion invested in achieving this level of mastery, you get to go back to zero.

Normally, we think of emptiness in negative terms.

He or she is empty. The glass is empty. My coffers are empty. My stomach is empty. I feel empty.

And yet, one of the most enlightened martial arts in the world suggests that being empty is the goal. How do we reconcile that philosophy with the Western obsession with being full-to-overflowing?

In a recent conversation, Richard informed me that the Aikido principle is “relax completely,” which means to take the power of your whole self (your skills, experience, reputation, money, ambitions, dreams, and accomplishments) and throw it all away! It’s a process of letting go of your attachments so that you can be more connected to your true self and to the universe.

There is an old Chinese saying that we need to “empty our cup.” It is attributed to an ancient conversation between a scholar and a Zen Master in the 8th century. The scholar, who was full of knowledge and opinions, visited the Master to inquire about Zen. The Master filled the scholar’s teacup, but did not stop pouring when the cup was full. Tea spilled out and ran over the table. “Stop! The cup is full!” exclaimed the scholar.

“Exactly,” replied the Master. “You are like this cup; you are full of ideas. You come and ask for teaching, but your cup is full; I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you will have to empty your cup.”

“November 1, 2014,” by Flickr user David Gabriel Fischer. THE ZEN DIARY

Most of us like to think of ourselves as open-minded, but we tend to filter any new ideas through many assumptions, beliefs, and knowledge we already possess. We are particularly challenged when the “new thing” is completely unrelated to anything we already know. Most of the time, our knowledge, beliefs, and assumptions help us navigate an utterly complex and complicated world. Sometimes, however, we are so anxious to stuff a new idea into our own conceptual box that we end up with a convoluted or distorted version of what the new possibility may represent for us, i.e. we are occasionally unable to think outside our own box by demanding that reality must conform to our ideas. People who are committed to dogmatic ideologies are particularly stuffed. They have a difficult time recognizing how their beloved assumptions and beliefs may not apply, thus leading them into colossal blunders.

Let me, once again, reference Ken Wilber for a perspective on emptiness:

Raindrops are beating, a large puddle is forming there on the balcony. It all floats in Emptiness, in purest Transparency, with no one here to watch it. If there is an “I,” it is all that is arising, right now and right now and right now. My lungs are the sky; those mountains are my teeth; the clouds are my skin; the thunder is my heart beating time to the timeless; the rain itself, the tears of our collective estate, here where nothing is really happening.

For me, there are many ways to fill myself up to avoid the Emptiness.

I may over-identify as a progressive thinker and thus fail to entertain conservative ideas. I may imagine myself as being more informed than most, and therefore, not fully appreciate the perspectives or perceptions of people I may consider willfully ignorant. I definitely have negative thoughts and feelings, and my desires for a fast and fulfilling life sometimes keep me from just slowing down for a moment to relax and reflect. I am also vulnerable to getting caught up in a consumer culture that believes that every new acquisition will fill a void. No, I wouldn’t cut it as a 5th degree black belt. I’m way too full.

I am wired and conditioned to be impatient and impulsive, so I get fed-up (full) pretty quickly. When I hear things that don’t fit with my view of the world, I can react quickly and say unkind things. For example, I’ve been known, particularly after a glass of wine, to fire off an e-mail in response to an article I read without letting it sit overnight. I hit the send button before I give more thought to the implications. I could probably benefit from a new mantra: Empty before sending!

In recent weeks, I have eaten so much Trump roast that I sometimes throw it all up in a burst of anger. I would be better off, as my friend Richard suggests, to just throw it away. Filling up on trash talk and emptying it on well meaning folks doesn’t help anyone.

An even better mantra might be: Throw it away so you don’t have to throw it up.

I’m afraid over the past few months most of us have been filled up with partisan rancor and negative discourse. We are so bombarded and consumed by darkness that it has been hard to empty ourselves of divisive hostility and make space for light. I’m really hoping that after all the bitter words we can find the way to better deeds. That will mean emptying the anger and angst from our tank and re-filling it with acceptance and forgiveness. We could all use some poison-free gas to fuel our higher passions these days.

Both sides in this election battle need to empty the hostility from our hearts and start again with the intention of finding common ground and substantive solutions to our problems. Perhaps the best mantra might be: empty and begin again.

Michigan fall landscape

On a recent hike in the Manistee National Forest along a beautiful trail bordering a winding river, my good friend and neighbor, Gary, unintentionally showed me how to let go of all the depressing distractions and take in uplifting sights, sounds, and smells.

As we were crossing a bridge over rushing water, he might say, “I love the sounds of mountain streams.” Or if we were deep in the woods with leaves dropping all around us, he would casually comment, “There’s nothing like the smell of Fall.” Or if we were looking back on a forest of trees bordering a meandering river – all turning magnificent shades of orange, green, red, and yellow – he would exclaim, “It’s so beautiful!” While the rest of us were spouting off about political debates, Gary was peacefully enjoying each moment right now, and right now, and right now. As a Land Conversancy Volunteer, Gary has learned to appreciate Nature. He isn’t overly identified. He doesn’t have a big ego. He doesn’t fill himself with negative thoughts and feelings. And you can always count on him for positive energy and support.

I get the sense that we miss a lot of beautiful moments when we are too full of our rigid views and our ugly narratives – or just too full of ourselves. It seems to me we could all benefit from returning to a state of emptiness in order to make space for wonderful surprises.

Hopefully, we don’t need to be a 5th degree black belt in Aikido to make a little room for loving kindness and lovely moments.

I’m looking forward to the knock on the door in a few years. I imagine my two fresh-faced and earnest 10 year-old grand-twins asking me if I have time to play. I envision not having such a full day that I can’t empty my schedule and attend fully to them. I’m hoping I will say, “Annie and Ezra, I always have room in my day and my heart for you. I can’t imagine there could be any better way for me to fill my soul than to hear the music of your joy and laughter. Come in. Let’s play – right now.”

Also published on Medium.

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Just what I needed today Ricky! I’ve been a bit “full” with Trumpworld and my back condition, so this was a good tonic for me. Thanks as always for being you! RonnyDonny

Artie Egendorf, PhD

Comment? On nothing dressed in words? :-)

Lovely story, Rick. And yes, timely reflections. Thanks.

BTW your friend has done great work. Have you “read” his energies? Interesting to note where he’s very full, and where not.

Gary Stauffer
Gary Stauffer

Thanks Rick! Miss you already!


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